Where to place Austin Willacy? Somewhere in the great open plains between Stevie Wonder and Kurt Cobain. Willacy, formerly of the House Jacks, has the voice of a classic soul singer and the songwriting sensibility of a grunge disciple. The result is a fascinating, if prickly, solo debut, American Pi.
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You get the sense, listening to his compositions, that Willacy can't really decide whether to rant with all his might or break down in tears of surrender. On most of the dozen tracks here, he does a bit of both. On the funkified "Hold Your Hand," Willacy lets rip with a full-throttle wail, while "Them" showcases his softer, poppier side, along with the lush slide guitar work of his collaborator Mark Orton. "Supertechnology" captures the foreboding mood of techno-paranoia in a swirl of guitars, while "Mary Jane" opts for a mellower vibe, with some delicious electric piano fills courtesy of Rob Burger. Elsewhere Willacy fleshes out his song lines with snatches of Wurlitzer, clavinet, cello, and violin. "If You Knew" has a lovely gypsy feel, thanks to some Latin syncopation and Burger's seductive work on the accordion.
The essential problem with American Pi has nothing to do with the music -- which is consistently compelling -- but with how, precisely, one markets Willacy. As an African-American, he's immediately going to be blackballed by the alternative-rock mavens, who generally eschew people of color -- unless they can rap over heavy-metal riffs. And yet his music is far edgier than the standard fare in adult contemporary or urban music.
Still, for those willing to look past radio-ready typecasting, Willacy's platter is a delightful blurring of genres.